From Museum of Stuffed Animals to Museum of Illusions

By Toma Muteba Luntumbue

The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren was renovated a couple of years ago, undergoing a process of decolonisation. This was very important for many African communities and important people because of the hurtful past Belgium has with King Leopold II, Congo, and racism. Museums have power because they choose what kind of history they show to people. This has been a Western and colonial history for a very long time. The writer says the museum here has not been listening to people of colour and their hurt, and do not see how they tell a story that is colonial and white. He says museums show how discussions about colonialism, racism and whiteness are still very difficult. This is the case in Belgium, where in other countries those conversation are already easier. This is a topic that is very ‘hot’ in the media, and that often is used in the wrong way by parties like N-VA and VB, not listening to what people of colour and Congolese people want. There is still a lot of racism. We must keep decolonising museums and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren.

It was indeed necessary for the decolonisation process announced as leading to the re-ordering of the public discourse and museology of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (RMCA) to involve a dialogue with the African diaspora. But the confrontation between experts from the African communities and the authorities of the former Colonial Museum revealed deep ideological antagonisms.

This sham of participatory museology has turned out to be a media decoy, intended to mask the failure to reform an institutional fossil. The latter is plagued by the contemporary crisis of models, historically codified to represent otherness in a multicultural society. When the Museum exploits the concept of decolonisation on its own account by distorting it, isn’t it more to depoliticise this concept and to maintain confusion in the public mind? This is all the better for nationalist indoctrination.

Identity crisis

With the deteriorating economic situation, discourse on the peril of migration is flourishing in several European countries. The continuous influx of asylum seekers and refugees from countries at war (e.g. Syrians, Afghans, Somalis, Iraqis, Eritreans) has profoundly changed behaviour towards immigrants and led to the hardening of reception policies. Since the tragic episodes of terrorist attacks the last two decades (New York, Madrid, London, Paris, Berlin, etc.), Islamophobia embodies the new ‘respectable racism’. It must be recognised that the model of a multicultural society in European countries is harshly put into perspective.

Located in the suburbs of Brussels, a cosmopolitan city and capital of Europe, the Tervuren Museum (RMCA), an old, colonial museum which has been under renovation for 15 years, finds itself fighting on a turbulent social front, riven between protest commandos and attempts to recover discourse by those in power. In its own way, the Museum embodies one facet of the crisis of representations of otherness that is affecting the entire Western world.

A media museum

Created by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, the Tervuren Museum constitutes one of the architectural expressions of this megalomaniac monarch’s omnipotence over the space of Brussels and its surroundings. Born in the aftermath of the 1897 Universal Exhibition, its primary function was to be a sort of ‘media’ in the pay of political propaganda targeted primarily at economic and scientific circles linked to the colonial enterprise. With an electric tramline running down its length, the Avenue de Tervuren is the most prestigious of the public works desired by the king, connecting the city with Tervuren, where the colonial section of the Universal Exhibition was organised. The expansion of the Brussels suburbs, the development of boulevards and several prestigious parks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the work of Leopold II, who financed most of these works out of his personal purse, fed by his income from the Congo. Street names, nationalist monuments glorifying colonial heroism, commemorative stellae, statues – a whole symbolic apparatus testifies to the hegemonic spatialisation of colonial imperialism. Leopold II’s urban ambitions are so deeply rooted in the soil of Brussels that it is impossible to ignore them.

Recognition and reparations

Since the end of the 20th century, social groups subjected to colonial domination and its violence have demanded recognition and reparations. In the former colonial metropolises, these claims highlight the shortcomings of active participation in real citizenship and of the integration of populations from colonised countries – in the present as in the past, in national narratives. Cultural institutions have become the battlegrounds of an ideological and aesthetic war in which the primary issue revolves around the symbolic management of spaces of representation in public policies. The problem area of how one sees the other revolves around questions of memory and the crisis of ethnographic museums as means of representing cultural otherness in multicultural societies. The presence in the public space of certain artefacts or signs bearing witness to colonial history complicates a heated debate: which characters and which events are entitled to be celebrated in the public space, especially when these contribute to perpetuating symbolically the relations of colonial domination and exploitation?

Failure of participatory museology

The problem of the restitution of cultural objects has occupied museum news for three decades in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where ‘indigenous communities’ are struggling legally to assert their rights over the objects of their heritage, or even the possibility of accessing them. But predictably, major museums are reluctant to allow themselves to be dispossessed of the collections on which their notoriety is based. In the United States (American museums hold the human remains of an estimated 500,000 ‘Indians’, as well as millions of artefacts), battles over restitution have culminated in a law aimed at reconciling two starkly different value systems – one based on the primacy of reason and science, the other on spiritual and religious values. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires federal collections and museums to return skeletal remains to Native American tribes along with the mortuary and sacred objects in their possession – some of which had been exhumed and collected since the mid-19th century.

In a Europe increasingly tempted to transform its ethnographic museums into places of exchange and cultural integration, a new system of exhibitions is being promoted. Their theoretical content re-examines colonialism while reinterpreting their own methods of exhibiting; thus committing themselves to confronting all kinds of taboo questions and trying to provide answers to them, or at least opening them up for debate. Participatory or inclusive museologies came into view from 2000 onwards, with most ethnographic museums seeking to introduce the principle of consulting groups that define themselves as social or cultural units into any form of representation they felt appropriate within the walls of their museum.Overall, these policies have effected no noticeable change. Caught up in the real-life social relations of political and economic domination, they have failed to transform museums into ‘critical spaces’ at the service of society as a whole.

The National Museum of World Cultures (Världkulturmuseet) in Gothenburg, Sweden, for example, began in 2004 to exploit the concepts of “Forum for Encounter” and “Forum for Integration”. The intention was first, to present the Världkulturmuseet as a platform for dialogue between Swedish society and Swedes of immigrant origin, and second, to confront the questions of cultural diversity that arise in the country by making visible a part of society that is absent from the discourse in Swedish cultural institutions. But from 2013 onwards, the Swedish multicultural model, albeit deeply egalitarian, experienced dramatic upheavals, with violent riots targeting immigrants as scapegoats. These events indicate the limits of celebrating cultural diversity in certain countries – inevitably leading to the exacerbation of stereotypes that haunt populist minds.


In France, the reaction to the intense debates stemming from criticism of the colonial heritage of cultural institutions in Europe has led to the creation of new institutions in tune with contemporary reality. The National Museum of the History of Immigration was created in Paris in 2007. This institution has taken up quarters in the Palais de la Porte Dorée in a building built for the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition, formerly the Colonial Museum (Musée des Colonies), which then became the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. The new museum was born there out of the need to change the way immigration is seen in France, by working on negative representations of which immigrants and their descendants are victims and which constitute an obstacle to their integration.

During a speech on 28 November, 2017 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, dared to break a taboo by declaring that he refused to“accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France”. He therefore publicly pledged to create within the next five years, the necessary conditions “for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage in Africa”. It is with reference to this speech by the French President that the ‘No Humboldt 21’ Collective, supported by many signatories requested, in an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the suspension of work on the project for a brand-new Museum in Berlin dedicated to extra-European cultures, the Humboldt Forum, scheduled to open at the end of 2019. The Collective called for the organising of a major public debate, considering that this “Eurocentric, retrograde” project was not conforming with “the idea of egalitarian cohabitation within a society of migrations”.


Let’s come back to Belgium, a country with a fragile identity and where, in comparison with current experiences in other countries, the question of the restitution of cultural property has just recently made its timid appearance. This exceptionality is partly due to the repressed parts of Belgian colonial history and the conditions of the dialogue initiated with representatives of African communities around the renovation and reopening of the Tervuren Museum. Like its many foreign counterparts, the Tervuren Museum was keen to make the involvement of the African diaspora a priority by creating, in 2003, the Consultative Council of African Associations, Comraf. In 2014, six experts of African origin were appointed by Comraf to work closely with the project team in charge of setting up the reference exhibition. But a constant series of misunderstandings over the months and a climate of mistrust and rigidity, aggravated by internal tensions within the Museum, quickly dynamited the process. Clearly, it was impossible to reconcile two visions: that of a management whose eagerness to respect the reopening date, initially scheduled for October 2017, made the actions totally incoherent, and that of the African interlocutors who, discovering the theoretical void of the project, demanded its total overhaul. The master plan for the future exhibition seemed totally vague to them – especially as the scenographers’ work appeared to be unanimously contested by the entire Museum team. The lack of innovative bias in the presentation of artefacts, the functional and decision-making opacity of the Museum, the ridiculously small role given to the proposals of the experts summoned, and the absence of any African thinking in the narrative accounts are revelatory of the malaise surrounding the Museum’s renovation.

Didacticism and encyclopaedism are pitfalls that seem impossible to overcome at the Tervuren Museum.

Facadism and taxidermy

The architectural choices made during the restoration of the old building, built from 1905 to 1908 to the plans of French architect, Charles Girault, can be summed up as a compromise combining heritage facadism and museum taxidermy. With the legitimate objective of giving the Museum more space for its permanent exhibitions, a reception pavilion now stands between the management building and the Palais des Colonies. A ticket office, a shop and a restaurant have been set up there. In addition to the excavation of the inner courtyard to create a basement-level, sky-lit area, convertible into an open-air theatre, an underground corridor (temporary exhibitions will be presented there) has been built to take the public from this new pavilion to the old building.

In accordance with the vision of the Federal Buildings Agency (Régie des Bâtiments), responsible for the works, the new museum programme must bow before a classified architectural volume of high historical value, built in the neoclassical tradition of the 19th century – with its columned facade, its original frescoes and its original showcases, without flexibility or possible extension.

Reverse ethnography?

Inside, the new scenography will not offer any reversal of perspective. No ‘reverse ethnography’ capable of overcoming the colonial myths of ethnicity, purity and origin. Political correctness is displayed in the evocation of anger-provoking subjects. The past is supposedly approached without taboo by the Museum team: colonial violence, the exploitation of resources, the paradoxical gap between Congo’s wealth and the extreme poverty of its population. A whole room will even be devoted to the diaspora. Contemporary works have been commissioned in an attempt to crack the visual regime of the old exhibition rooms, left unchanged to attest to the critical audacity of the new scenography. Decontextualised statuettes, debearded masks, artefacts on art pedestals, polished and over-patinated: the funereal aestheticisation of cultural objects has found new alibis in the concept of ‘decolonisation’, which the Museum has recently opportunely appropriated in its communications campaign. For its visual narration, the Museum uses photographs and moving images to recreate the context and the uses of certain artefacts. If the natural sciences dioramas with their stuffed animals standing out against artificial landscapes have been generally removed and placed in storage, noxious visual interferences are numerous in the presentations painstakingly designed by inexperienced designers insensitive to the conceptual programme overall.

The Tervuren Museum has not succeeded in moving on from a devout sacralisation of the objects in its collection and its building. The objects selected for the permanent exhibition have in many cases been chosen according to their dimensions, which need to correspond to the original showcases, classified with the building. The overuse of so-called ‘popular’ paintings, exhibited in most rooms to punctuate the visitor’s journey, with no obvious relationship to the themes of the exhibition rooms, embodies the haste and improvisation that have presided over this major renovation.

Long live the Flemings!

In December 2011, more than a thousand people, Congolese and Belgians of Congolese origin, demonstrated in Brussels – in Belgium – against the re-election of Joseph Kabila as President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. What was most surprising was not that these demonstrators took to the streets of Brussels to oppose the official results of the presidential election, which had taken place nearly ten thousand kilometres away, but the fact that they blamed the leading French-speaking Belgian politicians of the PS (Socialist Party), MR (Liberal Party), CDH (former Social-Christian Party) and Ecolo (Ecologist Party) parties of interfering in the political affairs of their country, and above all in supporting Joseph Kabila instead of the man they considered to be the regularly elected president, his opponent, Étienne Tshisekedi. Their strategy, which was extremely aggressive (e.g. damaging street furniture, breaking shop windows, violence against the police who had arrived in small numbers), sought to hijack symbols with no apparent relationship to the object of their claim. Many demonstrators brandished, out of pure provocation, Flemish nationalist flags as well as the portrait of the leader of the independentist, separatist and Flemish nationalist right, Bart De Wever (N-VA). A man who declared on the Flemish public television VRT that, from now on, “all Congolese should vote for the N-VA if they want change in Belgium”, showing a poster on which was written: “Long live the Flemish. Walloons are thieves”, “All Africans will vote for the N-VA”. Joseph Kabila’s rigged re-election just widened the enormous gap existing between the Congolese diaspora and their country of origin, but also with Belgium. Paradoxically, with this urban riot, a large part of the Congolese community took measure of its political ‘invisibility’ until then.

Congolese diaspora

Starting from the desire to see their members recognised as full citizens – that is to say, enjoying the same rights as everyone else – the rioters also wanted social value to be ascribed to that which distinguishes them from other Belgian citizens. On the one hand, they wanted to assume the extremely powerful link with their culture and country of origin, and on the other hand, they now counted on having an influence at the electoral level – in the democratic political life of their host country. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has evoked these multiple worlds constituted by the historically situated imaginations of groups scattered all over the planet. People who today live in imagined worlds (and not just imagined communities) to the point of being able to challenge and subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and the mentality that surrounds them. In this context, the demonstrators from the Congolese diaspora appropriated symbols, drawing from a reservoir of signs and images that they considered sufficiently disturbing and effective (the Flemish flags, the portrait of the politician certainly most hated by French-speaking Belgians at that time) in being understood by the rest of the Belgian population.

There is no possible decolonisation without dialogue between equal partners, without a real political alliance between social groups.

This strategy of diversion demonstrates the importance for these people to imagine their own symbolic spaces and to subvert the standards of representation imposed by the official media. The distortion of meaning produced by the fusion of the symbols of Flemish separatism with the denunciation of the neo-colonial interference of French-speaking Belgian political circles constitutes a re-appropriation of the usual discursive instruments of the dominant group. More than a diaspora, the Congolese form a transnational community, for whom the only existing country is the country of origin towards which the individual is entirely oriented – while his place of installation is more or less temporary, always perceived as such, as a place of passage, never as a place of personal investment; of definitive reterritorialisation. The position of these groups on the margins of power is located between several worlds, in indeterminate spaces, where identities are constantly reinvented, where new forms of resistance are consequently constructed.

Decolonising the way we see things

There is no possible decolonisation without dialogue between equal partners; without a real political alliance between social groups. If the dominant culture is to show the otherness of other cultures without folklorising it, without transforming it, without manipulating it, without betraying it appears impossible, it is important to light counter-fires – fires against the ideological and aesthetic war machines that the museum represents in liberal globalisation. To speak of the ‘decolonisation’ of viewing things in connection with the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, and even more with a ‘post-ethnographic or postcolonial museum’, is pure imposture. You might as well, as Aimé Césaire said, stand in front of a stone and wait for a flower to grow on it. In a context where human groups and places that are the object of representation evolve, change, multiply or move, cultural institutions should no longer be defined as conservatories of cultural traces, but observatories of our moving society.

The french original of this text was published in Bruxelles en movement under the title Tervuren : du musée empaillé au musée des illusions, June 2019